Circa on Jellicoe, Johannesburg

PHOTOS: Dook | PRODUCTION: Annemarie Meintjies | WORDS: Jaqueline Myburgh Chemaly

The Circa on Jellicoe gallery may be the most modern building on the Johannesburg architectural landscape today but somehow its simplicity evokes nostalgia for a time when life was far less complicated.

Johannesburg’s pavements are not known to be the prettiest, nor the cleanest, in the country.

Yet, on the corner of Jan Smuts and Jellicoe avenues, where our skyline is all the richer for the recent addition of the Circa on Jellicoe gallery, the pavement is pristine and the public art it bears is untouched. A giant pebble-like work in black granite by Willem Boshoff gleams in the sunlight; there are two priceless Eduardo Villa statues at the entrance.

How is it that, in a city where vandals and graffiti artists seem unable to resist a blank wall, this hallowed corner of Rosebank appears to have a protective veil?

It’s simple, says Pierre Swanepoel of studioMAS, the architect who designed Circa on Jellicoe. If a space is quite obviously looked after, then others respect it too. He points across the road to a disused property where a wall is unpainted – the pavement is a mess.

More than just a new building on our skyline, the construction of the gallery means a vote of confidence in this city. Owner Mark Read says he built it because he loves Johannesburg and wanted to show that there are wonderful things to curate here in a 21st century way.

A philosophy lesson

Pierre designed the building as something of a philosophy lesson for Joburgers. In a city where we have all retreated behind high walls and electric fences, it is his appeal for us to take ownership of the environment in which we live. He doesn’t deny that there is a need for security, he just feels there are other ways to create it.

Pierre’s approach starts with the access to Circa on Jellicoe from its sister gallery across the road, The Everard Read. There is no defined or enclosed pathway. Instead a newly paved road with several more pieces of public art says: this space belongs to the people who use it.

A simple but solid glass door leads you inside and onto the external pathway that curves around the building and up its three storeys.

Essentially, this is a building exposed to the elements, with giant fins of anodised aluminium the only shelter as you climb the exterior ramp.

“But don’t you get wet when it rains?” I ask. “Yes, but there’s nothing wrong with that,” Pierre answers.

Our modern lifestyle has given us an eternal fear of nature and in Circa Pierre has created an African reminder that the elements are okay.

A few African references

The elliptically-shaped building has a few African references: The colour spectrum of the aluminium fins is of 10 different shades of grey, brown and black taken from the bark of a tree.

The upright fins are also a reminder of sticks used to build a Zulu kraal and the curve of the path is reminiscent of the round passages in the Zimbabwean ruins where you can never see more than a few metres ahead of you.

On the ground floor, the room called Speke is empty at the moment but it is going to feature rapidly changing exhibitions of extraordinary global cultural curiosities. Here, gallery owner Mark Read is collaborating with Mark Valentine of Amatuli – one of the most renowned purveyors of African artefacts in the country – to create a showcase of everything intriguing, from Indonesian codpieces to an African dhow.

The main exhibition hall, the Darwin Room, is on the first floor, where seven screens can be pulled up from the floor to create traditional hanging space for art.

But, as a single chamber, the room creates a unique space for any kind of significant happening. Mark stresses that this is not only a contemporary art gallery and he is open to considering any ideas when it comes to the use of the space.

Platform for various events

The word Circa is Latin for “in between” and “about” – encapsulating perfectly the broad nature of the gallery and Mark’s intentions with it.

The gallery opened with the exhibition Penelope and the Cosmos featuring new work by Willem Boshoff and Karel Nel. There has been talk of a piece of the moon coming down for display and with Mark’s keen personal interest in palaeontology, there is every chance that some dramatic archaeological finds will be finding there way here too.

Finally, the ramp leads you to the roof of the building where the fins dip down to reveal the dramatic western view of Johannesburg. The angle is cleverly sliced to conceal any ugliness and expose the beautiful Northcliff hills.

The top storey is a private area, with a club-like lounge for the personal use of the owners.

On the southern side, the fire escape is dramatically enclosed in wire mesh fencing. Greenery has been planted to grow all the way to the top and create a green foil for the aluminium exterior of the building.

It is another reminder that Johannesburg needs to soften around the edges; to embrace the Circa philosophy and enjoy the elements.

• Circa on Jellicoe: 011 788 4805,
• studioMAS: 011 486 2979,